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The protests at Raisina Hill and Jantar Mantar against sexual violence and the way it is dealt with by the system, started off as a genuine and heartfelt mobilisation after the horrific rape of a 23-year-old in south Delhi. Young women and men came together to express their frustration at the way things are, speaking out for women's freedoms, demanding answers. Yet, the solutions that have been on show are excessive, ranging from harder laws to capital punishment. An illiberal clamour has been built up that demands instant justice, live on television, preferably prime-time television. Social media has been predictably unremitting in its insta-judgments. More disquietingly, TV news, run by professional journalists, has plonked all the loudest, most irresponsible keys. They too wanted answers, and wanted them in real time. Just as the Lokpal agitation had insisted that its charter be met immediately and without question, this media-protester spectacular quickly lapsed into a with-us-or-against-us chorus. Unlike a Lokpal bill that many have legitimate disagreements with, there is unanimity on the need to respond effectively and sensitively to sexual crime. It is also clear, however, that these responses will have to be considered and thoughtful, not knee-jerk actions forced by emotion.
On its part, the UPA has proved incapable of connecting with the people, let alone dealing with the demands of 24x7 television and social media. That disconnect could stem from the peculiar way authority is structured in the UPA. The government leaves it to the party's top leadership, the rest of the party also awaits their cue, cautious about even the most natural gestures like expressing compassion and fellow-feeling. It misses every opportunity to make a symbolic point. The Delhi chief minister, the home minister and other senior ministers took to TV to make their point, as did the prime minister, if belatedly and uncomfortably. The Congress president spoke to the crowd outside her home. It was clear that the public outreach was reluctant, however, and this failure to master the art of agile communication will probably cost the UPA.
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